Friday, March 27, 2009

The Greatest Pitchers I Ever Saw

I was born in 1971 and came of age during the Bronx Zoo era of the New York Yankees. Growing up in Brooklyn, playing in the St. Mary's Church Baseball League in Brooklyn in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I would try to emulate Goose Gossage, all arms and legs flailing hurling the ball as hard my 77-pound body could. Gossage was my hero, and every Yankee game, I waited for the 9th inning, just so he could come in and intimidate some poor Indian or Royal batter. I swore he was the best pitcher I ever saw.

Over the years, my devotion to Gossage has waned...a I watched hundreds upon hundreds of ballgames, and have gotten to witness some truly brilliant pitchers. Judging the best of them—whom I personally have seen—would be a challenge. So going by that criteria—who my eyes have watched live—I have tried to judge the top 5 pitchers, and the time in which they were at the height of their power.

5. Roger Clemens—Late 80s to mid 90s
My friends and I used to mock Clemens mercilessly—"Hey Fat Boy! 1918!"—and so on, the entire game long. Why him? It was because he was that good and we knew it. In the mid to late 80s, Clemens was the real deal and we recognized it. And as Yankee fans, we were jealous.

Clemens was a hoss; a big, young Texan, country-strong—the Red Sox answer to Mickey Mantle. Big personality, big delivery...big fastball. He was Nolan Ryan in Fenway, throwing up 20 strikeouts on the scoreboard before he was able to be called "a seasoned vet."

And as scary-good as he was, he was also just plain scary. Clemens was never afraid to throw at someone. A memory: after Clemens became a Yankee, he served as a mentor to Ted Lilly and some other young Yankee pitchers. So when an opposing pitcher plunked Derek Jeter after the Yankee shortstop had hit a home run earlier in the game, Ted Lilly hit the first batter the following inning and was immediately rejected. As Lilly is walking towards the Yankee dugout, there is Clemens, on the top step slapping his back, saying "Good! Good!" so loud the camera easily pick up his voice.

But usually he didn't need to frighten hitter with pain, just his splitter. A sick pitch, it traveled over 90 miles an hour for about 57 feet, then dove as if it fell off a table. Combine that with a mid to upper 90s fastball and you have a guy that every five days, puts your team in a position to win.

But now, the word "steroid" is inseparable from Clemens' name. And it can't not effect his legacy. Which is a shame. Because even before the steroids and the late career resurgence, he was a remarkable pitcher: 3 Cy Youngs, 1 MVP, 4 ERA crowns and 3 20-game seasons, all before 1996. And a hell of a lot of fear and derision coming from opposing crowds.

4. Steve Carlton—Early 1980s
In the early 80s, Shea Stadium was considered a "safer" place to go see a game than scary Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. So Yankee fan or not, my friends and I were taken to a bunch of games in Queens rather than in the Bronx. The plus side of that, was that I got to see Steve Carlton a bunch of times, pitching against the Mets. Carlton, already in the latter part of his career, dominated the Mets almost effortlessly, whizzing strikeout after strikeout, never tiring. Taller than he appeared on TV, Carlton threw hooks and darting fastballs till the Mets seemed demoralized and defeated themselves.

Somewhat overlooked—possibly due to his contentious relationship with the media—Carlton's stats boggle. In the times I saw him—the early 80s—Carlton was striking out batters at a much higher rate than in his supposed "prime" in the early to mid 70s. All while pitching a boatload of innings. From 1970 through 1983, Carlton never pitched less than 250 innings a season (excepting the strike year of 1981), and two times he pitched over 300 innings. He is the last pitcher to pitch 300 innings.

But the thing I remember the most was the movement of his pitches. It looked like Carlton was playing with a whiffleball while everyone else was throwing kettlebells. His pitches broke down so hard and suddenly, he made the Mets look silly trying to hit them. His hard left-handed delivery, inning after inning after inning, his pitches darting and diving—it was probably the first time I ever truly saw true mastery at work.

3. Mariano Rivera—Mid 1990s to present
In 1999, ESPN was interviewing some Atlanta Braves prior to their meeting the Yankees for the World Series title. And the Braves were saying all the things typical to that kind of interview: "Play hard...Yankees a great organization...dynasty...Jeter...Bernie...blah blah blah." Until the reporter asked a question about Mariano Rivera. Suddenly the "interview mask" fell off the Braves players face and you saw honesty. "Mariano. Aw man, he's just ridiculous. He's not fair."

And that's Rivera in a nutshell. He's so good, so dominating—with that ferocious, filthy cutter—that he commands respect. And fear. No matter what the circumstance.

Rivera was a decent pitching prospect—a starter—coming up in the Yankee organization, but with not a great shot at carrying through onto the majors. That is until two things happened: the first being the Yankees decision that his delivery and stature suited Rivera better for the bullpen. The second thing was when in addition to his 2- and 4-seam fastballs, Rivera began throwing a cut fastball.

It shouldn't be Rivera's fault that he makes it look so easy. He's never won a Cy Young (including coming in 2nd to Bartolo Colon in 2005 in what must be one of the most serious oversights in recent MLB Award history) and has only gotten as high as 9th in the MVP voting in his career—this despite that every single team in baseball would trade half their farm systems for Rivera at any point in his career. His 1.0199 WHIP puts him at the history of baseball. His adjusted ERA of 199 ranks him 1st in the history of the 45 points.

And all with one pitch. One filthy, fearsome pitch that quietly, but forcefully commands you to respect him. One final story. One time, the Red Sox fans were cheering when Rivera was called into a game, razzing him for blowing the previous game. Interviewed after the game, Rivera was asked if he got upset at that. To which, he replied "That's OK. I don't mind. Because in their hearts, I know they fear me."

2. Pedro Martinez—Mid 90s to mid 2000s
The truth is I didn't know much about Pedro Martinez when he was playing in Montreal. Oh you heard the numbers, saw the highlights—but frankly, even after he won the 1997 Cy Young, I still didn't know much about him. At that time baseball in Montreal was dying, and most of baseball didn't pay much attention to anyone playing there until they got traded out.

In 1998 that all changed. When Martinez became a Red Sox—just at the height of his pitching powers—everyone, including me, took immediate notice and said something like, "Holy geez. Where'd this guy come from?"

Pedro had movement on his pitches second to none. Every fastball, be it a 2- or 4-seamer, or a splitter or cutter, didn't just do what it was supposed to do, it shimmied the whole way to the plate, moving all over before it finally broke in. Or away. Or down.

His numbers speak for themselves. 3 Cy Youngs, 2nd on the active ERA list (to Rivera), 7th all-time on the Win-Loss percentage. Despite playing in a small park in the heart of the steroid era, Martinez threw what was is arguably the most dominating season a pitcher has ever had: 1999: 23-4, 2.07 ERA (the league average was 5.02) and a WHIP of 0.923. The following year he lowered his WHIP to 0.737.

As astounding as those numbers are, they don't say it all. It was Martinez's command, the movement he had on his pitches. None of his pitches ever came straight at the plate. Possibly taking after Martinez's own eccentric personality, his pitches never did what you expected. As one scout wrote: Pedro "...possessed a 95-97 mph fastball than moved viciously as it crossed the plate; he also had a plus curveball and a wicked change up. It was this combination of heat and deception that resulted in so many whiffed batters..." also, he "...throws from a low three-quarters position that gives more disguise to his delivery." Add it all up and you had a guy who dominated his era.

While dominating, Martinez's career hasn't been as long as Carlton's or some other pitchers— probably due to his smaller frame. But for about a decade, Martinez was as dominate as any who ever played the game.

1. Greg Maddux—Late 1980s to early 2000s
Simply masterful. Maddux in his prime, played the game as a genie would play with simpletons. Unlike Clemens or Rivera, Maddux never relied on his physical prowess (he didn't really have any; at his best, his fastball barely touched 89). Instead it was control (Orel Hershiser once said, "This guy can throw a ball in a teacup.") and his smarts were what rolled him to dominate and make batters look downright foolish.

A Story from Brad Penny: When Brad Penny and Maddux were teammates on the Dodgers, during the last two months of 2006, they had a conversation one day that led Penny to reach a stunning conclusion: "This guy knows my stuff better than I do." It was eerie, really, how easily Maddux dissected Penny's repertoire and suggested ways to maximize it. Penny, figuring he'd take advantage of the situation, asked Maddux to call a game for him against the Cubs. And so, on the night of Sept. 13, Penny glanced into the dugout before every delivery and found Maddux, who signaled the next pitch by looking toward different parts of the ballpark. Penny threw seven scoreless innings with no walks and beat the Cubs 6-0.

Another story: With the Cubs, Maddux once sat in the dugout and watched José Hernández of the Dodgers set up in the batter's box. After two pitches, Maddux turned to the guys around him and said, "We might have to call an ambulance for the first base coach." On the next pitch, Hernández whipped a shot that hit first base coach John Shelby in the chest.

Maddux was the best for this simple reason: He could throw any of his pitches to any exact place at time he wanted. He knew what to throw, when to throw it, and where to throw it. It wasn't his arm, or his height or his power. He just was able to do what he wanted at any time. Simple, really. But amazing.

And it wasn't just his smarts and and "feel" for pitching. As Tim Kurkjian wrote: Maddux could hit, he could bunt and he could run the bases (he is the oldest pitcher ever to steal a base). He never did anything on the mound to hurt himself or his team. He hit only 137 batters and walked a mere 999 in 5,008 1/3 innings pitched, and he averaged just three wild pitches per year. He was always around the plate; he and his catcher were always in sync. With him on the mound from 2003-05, Braves catchers had no passed balls, which means, for three years, he never once crossed up a catcher; not once did he miss his location by a foot and a half, like so many pitchers do, and make the catcher miss a pitch.

And oh yeah, he won 18 Gold Gloves in a row. And 4 Cy Youngs in a row. And he won at least 15 games in 17 consecutive seasons. He was a magician on the mound who despite having no advantages in size or arm strength went out and became the best pitcher of the past 30 years.

So those are the 5 greatest pitchers I've witnessed. Which are yours? Go and let us know on the comments board.


Pete S said...

Wow. I had forgotten about Carlton. He was awesome. I'd throw Jack Morris in there, but only because the Tigers owned the Yankees in the 80's and I'm not sure how to spell Tanana. Oh yes - that 10 inning gem Morris threw with the twins in the WS was supreme, but he was lights out for a few years there.

Travis said...

Well I grew up around the Texas Rangers and went to maybe one game a season. So I have never see great pitching...
I never got to see Nolan when he pitched. None of the oppositions pitchers really stand out.
Here is the closest I can think of right now:
John Wetteland
Jeff Russel
and Tom Henke all closers.

I saw Rob Nen when he started for the Rangers, he pitched a beautiful game, it got rained out, Nen got injured, the Rangers traded him, and he became a great closer.